An edited version of this piece appeared in the Deming Headlight today. This is the version I submitted, but the differences are minor. Feel free to drop by the page and leave a comment there. Or here. As you like.
What was unusual in this case was the target: the holiest Buddhist site in the world, the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya. Even in a world where terrorism is daily news, an attack targeting Buddhists was shocking to some. Buddhism has a reputation for being a gentle and pacific religion. The very first vow any Buddhist takes, for monks and laity alike, is a vow of non-violence. Formal Buddhist training includes methods for dealing with angry thoughts and impulses. Although the area around Bodh Gaya is a hotbed of a militant Maoist movement, as well as frequent conflict between Muslims and Hindus, why would anybody hit the Buddhists?
For those who blame radical Islam as the chief instigator of bloody conflict in our world, the arrest of a Mujahideen member hours after the bombing was a grim confirmation. Doesn’t this show once again that terrorism is mostly an Islamic problem?
These are both good questions.
The actual history of Buddhism is rather disappointing to its reputation. In spite of Buddhism’s scriptures and teachings about compassion and forbearance, Buddhists around the world have participated in wars of aggression, civil wars, and ethnic violence just like their brothers in sisters in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and the whole messy lot of us. Buddhist clergy have sought protection and favor from governments, and in return they have helped legitimize unjust actions by states. Zen priests helped prepare Japanese soldiers for combat in World War II.
Recently the Indian Mujahideen have called for attacks on Buddhists in response to recent events in Burma and Sri Lanka, where Buddhists – including many monks – have been beating up and killing Muslims. There has been no militant Islamist activity in these countries, just Muslim families setting up shop, worshipping their god, and being citizens. One prominent monk, who goes by the nearly unpronounceable name U Wirathu, has been called “The Buddhist Bin Laden” for advocating the eradication of Muslim culture in Burma. In other countries, like Afghanistan, Muslim majorities have beat up on Buddhists and blown up their holy sites. Around and around it goes in a death spiral of tit-for-tat violence. Where does it begin? How can it end?
Even Buddhists do it.
These disputes are not religious. The actual gripes are about ethnicity and economic grievance. (The recent cycle of violence in Burma began in a Muslim-owned gold shop.) In the end, human beings fight over common things: money, turf, and race. We dress up our dreams in the language of patriotism and religion to make these base passions seem noble.
U Wirathu, the Buddhist Bin Laden, has a dream about saving Burma. Radical Islamists (including the real Bin Laden) have dreams about a world based on Islamic principles. Christians who blow up abortion clinics, or pass laws requiring medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds, have dreams about saving the unborn and punishing sin. And humans with no religion whatsoever also have dreams that end in violence.
We are all involved, whether we engage in violence directly, or fund it through our taxes, or assent to it with our silence. And we also follow our own dreams, most of them ending in some kind of violence: if not physical, then perhaps emotional violence against our loved ones, or social violence against our neighbors.
If we wish to take some responsibility for these cycles of suffering and violence, a first step might be to stop pointing fingers and wake up from our own angry dreams. All religions talk about peace, but none have a patent on it, and very few of us put it into practice.